Half marathon … check.

Marathoncheck.

Ultramarathon … … …

Even though a 50K ultramarathon is only 5 miles longer than a marathon, just saying the word “ultra” makes it sound intimidating. And it’s that intimidation and the accompanying unknowns that prevents many runners from ever giving it a shot.

We can’t have that.

If you’re to peek behind the curtain of ultramarathon training, and see what it’s really like — the differences and similarities to marathon training, what you can expect once you kick off a training cycle — you might be surprised. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

This is my attempt at putting it all out there, so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into … and what you’re not.

If You Can Run a Marathon, You Can Run an Ultramarathon

When I first considered training for a 50K ultra several years ago, someone told me that if I could run a marathon, I could run an ultramarathon.

“Really?” I thought to myself. It was a life-changing realization at the time, and just the confidence boost I needed to pull the trigger.

That simple motto has shaped my approach this blog, coaching, and running in general.

And here’s why I believe it to be true:

  • Training for an ultra requires discipline.
  • Training for an ultra requires patience.
  • Training for an ultra requires courage.
  • Training for an ultra requires perseverance.
  • Training for an ultra requires mental toughness.
  • Training for an ultra requires a base level of fitness.

Sounds like a lot, but these are all things also required to get through marathon training and racing.

Now let’s take a look at what’s not required for running an ultramarathon (contrary to what many believe):

  • Training for an ultra does not require an absurd amount of mileage.
  • Training for an ultra does not require an absurd amount of time.
  • Training for an ultra does not require super human powers.

So if you can train to run a marathon, you can train for and run an ultramarathon.

The 4 Big Differences (Between Marathon and Ultramarathon Training)

But, of course, you can expect a few big differences in how you approach training. The differences don’t necessarily require much additional time or energy, but they will shift how (and where) you run.

Let’s take a look at the four biggest differences:

1. More Low-Intensity Mileage

For most first time ultrarunners, expect a shift away from speed work and towards more low-intensity mileage and time on your feet.

Which makes total sense. Longer runs require a sustainable low-intensity effort, making speed work less important. While the weekly mileage may increase, the intensity of those workouts will decrease.

Note: This does change as you get more comfortable at the distance. Once you have the mileage down, speed work — tempo runs and longer threshold workouts — become a bigger priority.

2. Course Specific Training

As a general rule (there are plenty of exceptions), road marathons are held on city roads and don’t include much change in elevation, surface, or conditions.

Ultramarathons, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly run on trails, which introduces a number of new factors. To get a better understanding of the course, I always check out the race’s course description and read race reports at the very beginning stages of training. I can then use that knowledge to adjust my training for those course-specific conditions.

Here are the questions I try to find out, and what to do about them:

  • How technical are the trails? Are they smooth and wide, or rocky and harder to navigate? Once you have an idea of the type of trails you’ll be racing on, find trails near you that best mimic those conditions for your long runs and key training runs. Further resources:
  • What’s the overall elevation change? A course could have several big climbs or major descents. Significant elevation changes can make or break a run, depending on how you’ve trained, so always prepare for what’s to come. Further resources:
  • Will altitude be a factor? If you’re running high in the mountains, training for or at least preparing mentally for the altitude may be important.
  • Are you running in the dark? Many ultramarathons start before sunrise or run past sunset. If you don’t have experience running trails in the dark, be sure to headlamp it for a few training runs. Further resources:

A photo posted by Doug H (@rockcreekrunner) on

3. Longer Long Runs and Back to Back Long Runs

As expected, long runs will be longer than what you’d typically see in a marathon training plan. For most runners training for a 50K, they’ll run a 24-26 mile long run on their own, which can feel like an overwhelming task when you haven’t done it before.

Unfortunately, there’s no medals or finish lines on a training run, but you can make it a fun adventure that’s just as rewarding. Plus, there’s always beer and pizza to throw yourself a party.

Back-to-back long runs are also part of most ultramarathon training plans. At certain times throughout training, you may find two long runs scheduled on the same weekend. This trains your body and mind to run on tired legs, and is a great way to get additional time on your feet without scheduling a massive single long run.

4. Nutrition Exploration

While a single energy gel and water from the stations may be enough to get you through a marathon, most runners need a lot more during an ultra.

Even a 50K ultramarathon may take two or three hours longer to complete than your road marathon PR.

I always recommend that new ultrarunners explore nutrition, hydration, and gear strategies during long training runs. Practice and strategize, so that when you show up at an aid station on race day, you know exactly what your stomach can handle.

Sample Training Weeks

What your exact training plan looks like will depend largely on your running history, injury history, and the race you’ve registered for. But to show that training often isn’t that much different than what you may already be used to, I thought I’d share a few sample weeks.

The weeks are written with first-time 50K runner in mind:

Beginning of Training

  • Monday: Off/Rest day
  • Tuesday: 50 minutes with hills + Strength routine
  • Wednesday: 60 minutes at an easy pace
  • Thursday: 50 minutes on trails + Strength routine
  • Friday: Off/Rest day
  • Saturday: 12 miles on trails
  • Sunday: 40 minute easy recovery run + Strength routine

Middle of Training

  • Monday: Off/Rest day
  • Tuesday: 60 minutes with specific hill workout + Strength routine
  • Wednesday: 90 minutes at an easy pace
  • Thursday: 60 minutes on trails + Strength routine
  • Friday: Off/Rest day
  • Saturday: 3 hours on trails
  • Sunday: 40 minute easy recovery run + Strength routine

Peak Training Week (4 Weeks Out)

  • Monday: Off/Rest day
  • Tuesday: 60 minutes with specific hill workout + Strength routine
  • Wednesday: 90 minutes easy
  • Thursday: 70 minutes on trails (in the dark) + Strength routine
  • Friday: Off/Rest day
  • Saturday: 4.5 hours on trails
  • Sunday: 30 minute easy recovery run

Behind the Curtain, Things Aren’t So Bad

So there you have it, an honest look at the differences between marathon and ultramarathon training.

What do you think?

I hope it helps to ease any concerns, and remove much of the unknown. Because remember …

If you can run a marathon, you can run an ultramarathon.

And if that’s your dream, you should chase it.

 

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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